To Beginning (Part 1)
We made it. Mara felt warm tears of relief trickle down her cheeks. There sat the safehouse, barely more than a wood shack under the crown of an enormous oak.
But fear scorched away Mara’s tears of relief. Voices were coming from the dimly-lit shack.
The past two safehouses had been completely empty. She’d assumed she and Ian were some of the last Caders left; that only they’d learned about both the houses and the oncoming Vaerin massacres in time.
Had she been wrong? Were these other survivors… or were they Vaerin, waiting in an abandoned house to spring their trap?
As her whole body ached and her throat burned, Mara wasn’t sure which she dared hope.
She set Ian down in a bush—one of the few green ones left. The forest fires hadn’t touched this area yet. No need to hush the boy; he knew what to do. He settled under the bush’s thin branches and remained still.
Then Mara crept toward the safehouse.
It had one single window on the side, which she avoided at all costs; no need for Vaerin to get a quick peek at a helpless Cader crouched just outside their house. Instead, she skirted the shack and made her way to the back wall, where she knelt and pressed her ear against the wood siding.
The voices inside were soft and they were many, but she could make out every few words.
“—all agreed… dangerous to stay here.”
“No, we’re most certainly… could be mor—”
“—can’t stay for the sake of a few…”
A man’s baritone voice interrupted them all: “Enough.”
That one word extinguished all the other voices.
A sigh. Then the baritone continued, “We could spend all night arguing around this. We already know from Erik’s report that the fires are spreading. Saundra’s right; we can’t risk everyone here for the sake of a few more who may or may not be out there.”
Someone started to protest, but the baritone voice cut them off, “Believe me, Alan, no one wants to stay more than me.” He paused. “You’re not the only one who’s hoping their family escaped the executions.”
Caders. Relief flooded Mara’s chest. She relished the emotion as if it were a cool drink. Survivors.
She raced back to the bush, rummaging around to fish out Ian. Her hands were shaking as she grabbed the boy. And, hopefully, friends.
Behind her, she heard the shack door swing open; it slammed against the wooden wall. “Don’t move!” shouted the baritone voice.
Mara whirled, Ian already in her arms.
“I said don’t move!” the baritone voice repeated from the doorway of the shack. The voice still had no face; all she could see was his silhouette blocking the doorway, his body backlit by wan candlelight from the shack.
This time, Mara obeyed.
Four long-legged strides took the man to the bushes, where Mara stood frozen. The mysterious man was tall and slender, but any further details were impossible to make out in the night.
The man paused before stretching an unthreatening palm toward her. His voice became far more soft, understanding. Perhaps even a little embarrassed and relieved. “Forgive us; we thought you were Vaerin.” Then he gestured to the shack. “There’s not much room left, but please, join us. You must be exhausted.”
“I’ve been running for twelve days,” she croaked wryly. She hardly recognized her hoarse, scratchy voice. “I guess ‘exhausted’ is one way to put it.”
She thought she could see the man smile. He held out his hand again. “My name is Monroe.”
Mara clasped his wrist, and he took hers; the customary greeting for Caders, but she wasn’t about to put Ian down to do it. Not on her life. Although holding a five-year-old in one arm and clutching someone’s wrist with the other was no easy task.
“Mara,” she finally bit off.
“Welcome aboard, Mara,” Monroe said gently.
She’d been wrong to be so curt with him. I have no idea what he’s lost to get to this place.
But it was too late to apologize now. Monroe was already leading her into the shack; he ducked inside ahead of her. The whole place was only lit by a single pale candle, but it still took Mara’s eyes a few seconds to adjust to the new light.
“She’s one of us,” Monroe reassured the shack’s inhabitants as her eyes finally took in the scene.
Twelve sets of hollow eyes—thirteen counting Monroe—stared back at her from faces across the spectrum of skin tones and facial features that the Caders were so well-known for: lily whites and olive golds and sunkissed tans and deep browns; broad or thin noses, wide eyes or almond-shaped, thin lips or luscious ones. Monroe himself had creamy light-brown skin, a shock of ebony curls, and a trimmed beard that framed his high cheekbones and tall, noble face.
“Looks like Alan was right to vote we wait,” muttered a woman with brown tresses who was sitting near the back of the room.
No one disputed it, but tension hung thick as wet leather. Some of those eyes felt like they were singeing Mara worse than the flames.
Mara felt her way along a wall until she collapsed in a heap, Ian in her lap. Shifting uncomfortably, she let the boy free; but Ian only cuddled closer and looped his arms around her neck.
She’d come to expect a similar scalding look from the few Vaerin travelers she’d encountered. She’d even become used to those stares from her fellow Caders once they’d seen her “child” or The Magus.
But to get those looks now, in the middle of a war? Yes, they were two more burdens, two more mouths to feed. But they were also two more survivors. Didn’t that mean something when their people were being exterminated?
Not friends after all. Mara hugged Ian to her chest.
“Everyone,” Monroe began in a soft voice, “this is Mara and…”
If he’d been waiting to see if the boy wanted to introduce himself, he was disappointed. The little one miserably buried his face in Mara’s shoulder.
“And Ian,” Mara finished briskly. “We came from Rhodan Village.”
“Rhodan? They have a lot of powerful mages there, don’t they?” an adolescent girl whispered, incredulous. “Especially for a little town.”
“I heard that was one of the worst,” murmured a short man with sad, dark eyes.
Ian whimpered, and Mara clutched him tighter. “Please,” she said quietly, but it may as well have been an order.
And they all seemed to notice. Mara could almost feel the other Caders take a sharp breath at the tone of her voice, at the threatening knife’s edge just barely hidden under her word.
“We still have more to discuss,” Monroe cut in. The tension slackened at the sound of his voice, but not by much. Monroe glanced to Mara, gesturing around the room. “We were just working out our plans for moving forward.”
He paused uncomfortably. Someone coughed near the back of the shack. Nobody deigned explanation.
So. It was up to her to take the bait. Mara cleared her sore throat. “…Which is?” she asked, staring blankly at Monroe.
Monroe continued, but he hardly answered her question. “The safehouses were set up in a southerly direction,” he began.
Mara struggled to withhold her irritation. That was useless information; The Magus had explained as much when he’d snatched her and Ian out of bed, whispering that they needed to run. Now. That the Vaerin invaders weren’t showing mercy to the towns that surrendered to them. That they were gathering up any magic-users, licensed mages and untrained amateurs alike.
Tears crept into Mara’s eyes. She pretended they weren’t there.
“They were designed as a pathway of sorts,” Monroe continued, “a path to the border.” He rapped his knuckles on the shack’s only furniture: a small round table that held the lonely candle. “The goal was to guide any survivors into the neighboring country of Torien.
“Once we cross the border, we’ll be refugees. The Torien government should provide us safety from the Vaerin.”
Safety. The Magus’s words rang like iron in her ears: “You just have to make it to Torien. The border’s two weeks from here if you take it slow,” he’d said as he’d pressed a kiss to her forehead.
It’d all sounded so hopeful. So tempting. Up until this very point, she’d thought that if they could just make it to the last few safehouses, if she could just get Ian away from the frontlines, they’d be all right. They’d hunker down; they’d hide; they’d be safe.
But now that she was here, looking around the shack full of faces… Mara’s heart sank. So he sent us to our deaths, after all.
But The Magus hadn’t known. How could he have known things would turn out like this?
“Your plan has one fatal flaw,” Mara murmured, nervously running her fingers through Ian’s downy hair.
Silence. No one disputed her. Maybe some of them already knew. Maybe they’d already heard while on the run, like she had.
Either way, it had to be said.
With a sharp breath, Mara blurted out, “Torien issued a statement three days ago. They’ve closed their borders. They’re not letting anyone in or out.
“They’ve abandoned us.”
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Photo: Twisted Words by Jack Cain; originally posted on Unsplash.com.
From Him, To Him